A Guide to Renting Your First Apartment

Ready to say goodbye dorm, hello apartment? Renting your first place is a huge step, and you want to get it right. That’s smart! There are fees, contracts, deposits, utilities and — oh, yeah — roommates to think about. The good news is, people have been renting a place to live for like, centuries, and you can totally handle this. Read on for the best way to get that renter’s contract in hand so you can start moving in.

Deciding how much rent to pay

The first thing to figure out is your budget. Hopefully, you’ve got your job lined up at this point, although it can be tough to get all the moving pieces in your life to align at exactly the same time. But generally, you need to know how much you’re bringing in each month. 

Once you’ve got your monthly income settled, figure out what your obligations are. Your student loans may be in repayment mode now, so write down that monthly figure. If you have a car note, write that down too. Track your expenses, if you haven’t already, so you know how much you’re shelling out at the bars or restaurants and can set aside the cash for a social life (or decide it’s time to cut back a little — sometimes that’s an eye-opening figure!). It’s OK to ballpark things when you’re starting out and fine-tune later, but you want to at least be close.

There are a number of methods for determining what percent of your budget should be what. One way is called the 50-30-20 method. With this one, you assign 50 percent of your budget to needs, such as rent and utilities. Then, 20 percent of your income will go to savings and/or debt repayment (such as paying off credit cards). The remaining 30 percent is for wants: Netflix, video games, dinners out, new shoes, whatever. 

Picking an Apartment

With your budget in hand, you should have a good idea of what you can afford. Don’t have a budget? Here is a quick and easy way to to create one.

When you’re searching for an apartment, you’ll want to consider the location. What neighborhood is going to be the right distance from work? Consider whether you’ll want to drive, bike, walk or bus there. If you plan to use public transportation, are you close enough to a stop? Will the neighborhood provide access to things like nightlife (if that’s important to you), grocery stores, train stops or other important features? Is it safe? Will you need to worry about drug traffic, muggings or police sirens all night long? You’ll probably know what feels like “home” when you tour the apartment, but it’s good to entertain those questions in the back of your mind.

You’ll also want to decide whether you want a big complex with all the amenities (and a price tag to go with it) or go for a private rental. Studio, one-bedroom, roommates: these will also be decisions to make, too. You can base it on budget or personality or a mix of both. And if you change your mind later, well, that’s what one-year leases are for.


A Word About Roommates

A great way to save on housing is to split your costs with a roommate (or two or three). Look for someone who is responsible and clean — and will pull their share of the weight of household tasks. Work out who is going to do what and be super clear about expectations. Know when and how much rent is due and who is paying what share of the utilities. Then be the kind of roommate you want to see in the world. Set a good example and your roomies should follow suit.


The Application Process

When you’re ready to apply, make sure you have enough cash on hand to pay a deposit, which could include first and last month’s rent or another amount on top of that. You may also be obligated to pay a pet deposit, if you’re bringing a pet with you. Definitely check on the rules regarding pets beforehand. You’ll be on the hook for a hefty cleaning fee if you keep a pet without clearing it with your landlord first.

Your landlord can check your credit score, so it definitely pays to keep paying all your bills on time and protect your score. Credit score less than stellar? Consider contacting a credit repair company, many can help raise your score significantly. 

Fill out the rental application and pay the application fee. Be aware that you may need to secure a co-signer if you don’t have a lot of history. That is to protect the landlord from non-payment, since you’re just starting out. Once you establish a good rental history, you’ll be able to sign for apartments on your own in the future.

Once your application is accepted, you’ll sign the lease agreement, receive your keys, and then it’s time to move in!


Paying and protecting your security deposit

You definitely want to get your deposit back, right? Take photos of the condition of the apartment the day you move in. Then, be smart about caring for the apartment, and be extra careful about not leaving marks on walls, rugs and appliances. Don’t make any major changes to your place without clearing it with your landlord. Be a good human and clean up after meals to keep pests away. If you have a pet, and it’s been OK’d, take care to stay on top of their messes, including any furballs, litterboxes, indoor accidents or other pet-specific oopsies. 

Make sure you switch the utilities over to your name and pay everything on time. You can set your bills on autopay through your bank, or put a reminder on your phone. If you forget, the previous tenant may get an unhappy surprise bill — and you’ll have to pay the lump sum, on top of getting an earful from that tenant or the landlord. Bad karma.

Don’t forget to get renters insurance, too. You can usually sign up through the same place you get your auto or other insurance, or you can easily find an insurance company online. It doesn’t cost too much, but you’ll be glad you have it if there’s ever an accident, damage or even a robbery. Your stuff will be covered and you’ll be able to replace it quickly. Without insurance, you’re just out of luck.


Final thoughts

As you can see, renting your first apartment may sound intimidating at first, but it’s really not that much more complicated than taking care of your living arrangements in college. You’ll quickly learn the best way to get the most bang for your buck, and if you treat your roommates, neighbors and future landlords the way you’d want to be treated, you’ll be in for a peaceful, easy living situation.

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